Advocating for Sri Lankan Migrant Workers
Obstacles and Challenges
Author: Michele R. Gamburd
Nearly a million Sri Lankan women labor overseas as migrant workers, the vast majority in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in West Asia. They are poorly paid and vulnerable to a wide variety of exploitative labor practices at home and abroad. Despite the importance of worker remittances to Sri Lanka's national economy, and in spite of the nation's history of organized labor and active political participation, migrants have received only anemic support from the state, labor unions, feminist organizations, and migrant-oriented nongovernmental organizations. The article contextualizes Sri Lankan migration within larger-scale economic dynamics (such as global capitalist policies and processes) and local-level ideological formations (such as local political histories and culturally shaped gender norms). The author argues that political freedoms in destination countries have a significant effect on organizing activities in both host and sending nations. Comparing the Sri Lankan and Philippine situations, the author contends that the vibrant activism in the Philippines correlates with the liberal organizing climates in the European Union and in East and Southeast Asia, while the paucity of organizing in Sri Lanka correlates with the strict repression of guest workers in the GCC. Compared to other destinations, the GCC countries give workers (particularly women) less chance for autonomous activities, are less open to labor organizing, and are less responsive to political protest.